Retroactivity … and the Effect of Statutory Numbering

Chiarello v. PERS Bd. of Trustees, 429 N.J. Super. 194 (App. Div. 2012).   This opinion by Judge Fisher addressed the question of whether the application of plaintiff for a disability retirement from his job with the South Jersey Transportation Authority while retaining his other job as Mayor of Buena Vista Township was to be evaluated under “the law existing at the time the retirement application is submitted or at the time the application is ruled upon.”  Plaintiff applied for the retirement on February 16, 2011, seeking to retire as of March 1, 2011.  As of both those dates, N.J.S.A. 43:15A-47.2 permitted him to retire on disability from one job while continuing in the other position.  At the suggestion of a representative of the Division of Pensions and Benefits, however, his retirement date was changed to August 1, 2011.  Meanwhile, the Legislature repealed the relevant statute.

Judge Fisher concluded that the prior law should have applied.  Plaintiff had submitted his application before the repeal of the statute, with the intent that his retirement would also occur before the repeal.  “It was only at the Division’s suggestion that Chiarello’s target retirement date was altered to a date beyond the repeal’s effective date.  Simple fairness– let alone the well-established [constitutional] principle that favors prospective application of statutes–” required a ruling in favor of plaintiff.

Judge Fisher also cited the “square corners” doctrine.  As discussed here, that principle requires a public body to “turn square corners,” that is, to deal fairly, with the public.  Chiarello had expected when he took his jobs that he could retire in this fashion, and the law remained unchanged as of when he sought retirement and on the date he proposed to retire.  It was only due to the agency’s own action that plaintiff’s retirement did not occur before the repeal.  It was improper to penalize him for that.

PERS made a separate argument as well, contending that disability retirements were never covered by section 47.2.  PERS noted that the statutes governing disability retirements appear earlier, at N.J.S.A. 43:15A-42 to -46, while retirements for age are dealt with in section 47.  Thus, section 47.2 applied only to retirements for age, not to disability retirements.

Judge Fisher did not agree.  The particular arrangement and numbering of statutes, which is done by the Office of Legislative Services, not the Legislature itself, is for the purpose of convenient reference, and “no implication or presumption of a legislative construction” can be drawn from that.  Sections designated with decimal points are nonetheless distinct designations, as opposed to subsections, and remain separate statutory sections.